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Reporting Somalia: Love for Motherland without fidelity to truth is deceit

This month, one story toppled the 2022 race for State House from the headlines: Somalia. Reporters in Nairobi who have never reached the border still have no qualms describing it as “a war-torn country”.

The tenth anniversary of Kenya Defence Forces’ entry into our eastern neighbour, ostensibly in pursuit of Al Shabaab terrorists, coincided with a ruling by the International Court of Justice in the long-running Indian Ocean boundary dispute. How should the Kenyan media report conflict with an African sister-nation?

To mark the anniversary of the war on Al Shabaab, TV stations ran lengthy reports about KDF’s exploits in Somalia. Newspapers gave in-depth coverage. As it has been the case in the past decade, all the reporting was about what the soldiers said. Apparently, it is too dangerous for reporters to go to the frontlines to see things for themselves. So, media houses have little else to go by except the KDF version of events. Truth is the first casualty of war, the adage goes.

Ten years ago, gushing TV journalists donning helmets and bullet-proof jackets reporting from Somali towns assured viewers the war would be over within days. Kenyan men and women in uniform would shortly make a triumphant return, singing and dancing in victory having stabilised Somalia. It is the same thing American soldiers told the world going into Afghanistan two decades ago. Today, no one knows – or really cares – anymore when KDF will leave Somalia.

Kenya is also embroiled in a border dispute with Somalia. The International Court of Justice delivered its ruling on October 12. Kenya lost, but not quietly.

Veteran scribe Macharia Gaitho in a Nation column titled, “On ICJ, we shot selves in the foot”, wrote that: “We’re sore losers. And if there is one thing other than thieving, we best the uncivilised world at, it is anticipating defeat and crying foul in advance”.

What got Gaitho’s goat was that ahead of the ruling, Kenya announced it was withdrawing from the case, would not accept the verdict and no longer respected the international court. “We are adept at going into contests unprepared; and when the inevitable dawns, we throw hissy fits,” Gaitho bristled.

And the media is part of this. How? A Reuters report said the UN court “ruled largely in favour of Somalia” in the case. “A new boundary drawn by the International Court of Justice mostly followed a line proposed by Somalia, attributing to it several offshore oil blocks claimed by Kenya”.

But The Standard threw a tantrum. “Somalia walks out of ICJ without claimed territory,” its headline crowed on October 13 (p.1). In the story on Page 4, Mombasa Road accused Somalia of attempted land-grabbing.

“Somalia’s expansionist dreams suffered a major blow yesterday after the International Court of Justice rejected its demand to have its territorial waters extended in a move that would have rendered Kenya landlocked,” the paper said.

So, Kenya won the case, the facts be damned. Somalia didn’t have a just cause but “expansionist dreams”. “However, the court dismissed the claim, finding that the net effect would have been to make Kenya a landlocked country as it would not have access to the waters,” Mombasa Road reiterated.

Somalia was the aggressor. The facts before the court didn’t count. “Kenya tried to push for an out-of-court solution to the maritime dispute with Somalia but in vain,” The Standard reported in another story depicting Kenya as the victim.

“The country tried to engage Somalia through the African Union, individually but all these efforts hit a dead end”.

Daily Nation led with Kenya’s reaction to the ruling, not the facts of the decision. “Not an inch: Kenya rejects sea verdict”, the headline stated. The story appeared to prime Kenyans for war to defend their territory.

“The International Court of Justice has set the stage for confrontation between Kenya and Somalia after Nairobi vowed to reject the verdict on the Indian Ocean boundary dispute with Mogadishu,” the story said.

Kimathi Street was, of course, not interested in the merits of the case Somalia brought before the judges and Kenya’s arguments. The editors instead privileged the views of Solicitor General Kennedy Ogeto about the outcome of a case from which Kenya had withdrawn. The move was ill-advised, too little too late.

What sort of “confrontation” did the Nation have in mind in the intro? Kenya going to war with Somalia over the dispute? Well, the paper said despite Kenya’s withdrawal from the case, “the judgement is final, binding on the parties and without appeal”.

So, aware of this fact, the newspapers tried to help Kenya “throw hissy fits” after losing the case. Is this professional journalism or media engaging in populist jingoism? How can patriotism be more important than truth?

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